S.S. Mailbag: Of Camp and Cuts

mailbag

Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Penn wide receiver Justin Watson in the fifth round and he went on to play in 12 games as a rookie. That made Watson the first Penn product to play for the Buccaneers in their 43-season history. The year before that, tight end Antony Auclair, became the first Buccaneer ever to come out of Laval, a college in Canada.

You might think that after all these seasons the Buccaneers would be running out of new frontiers from which to find players. You would be wrong. There are a whopping seven men on the current 90-man roster who could possibly become the first players from their respective schools to suit up for the Buccaneers in a regular-season game. They are:

· OLB Kahzin Daniels, Charleston

· G Ruben Holcomb, Indianapolis

· TE Tanner Hudson, Southern Arkansas*

· CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, Central Michigan

· LS Zach Triner, Assumption

· C Nate Trewyn, Wisconsin-Whitewater

· G Earl Watford, James Madison

* Hudson appeared on the Buccaneers' active roster for the final three weeks of last season but did not play in a game.

You might make the, uh, assumption that Triner had a shot to break the NFL barrier for Assumption alums, but again, you'd be wrong. (You've been wrong an awful lot in this intro.) In fact, an Assumption player was in the league just last year; that would be tight end Scott Simonson, who has played in 34 games over four years with Oakland (2014), Carolina (2015-16, spent 2017 on injured reserve) and the New York Giants (2018). However, Triner might stand alone if he makes the Bucs' roster (as the only long-snapper in camp, that's a good bet), as Simonson was just released by the Giants on Wednesday.

So if you also happen to be an alumnus of any of those seven schools above, root for the noted player to carry your flag into Buccaneers' history.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

When is the 53 man roster coming out?

\Ahmad.kelly\, via Instagram

I'll start out with an easy one, let myself ease into this mailbag like it's a hot tub.

The FIRST iteration of the Buccaneers' 2019 53-man roster will be formed on Saturday, August 31, with a league deadline of 4:00 p.m. ET that day. It is commonly made public by the team shortly after that deadline. That's the day when all teams have to cut from 90 down to 53, though it's fairly common for teams to get a head start and make some of their cuts the day before, between their Thursday night preseason finales and the cut deadline. Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Wednesday that he felt he could easily get it down to about 60 players right now, so it's those last six or seven cuts that are going to be the tough ones.

I made a point of calling it the first iteration of the roster because it is never truly final. And, in fact, there is often a lot of activity in the couple of days that follow the cutdown to 53. That's when teams scour the wire, looking through the names of hundreds of players who were just made available by other teams around the league. The Bucs may find a player or two who they believe would be better fits for their last couple spots.

Also, for a player who goes on injured reserve to be eligible for one of the team's two "designated to return" options during the season, he has to make it through the cut to the initial 53-man roster. If he is put on IR before that cut-down, he cannot return to active status with the team that year. That would be the case for players like Mike Liedtke and Orion Stewart, who have already been placed on injured reserve. Hopefully, the Buccaneers won't have any other players they need to put on IR, but if they want a shot at getting them back at some point during the season they have to keep him that Saturday and then make a move with him the next day.

Biggest surprise from both sides of the ball so far in camp?

Jaenrivera86, via Instagram

Okay, now that I'm acclimated to the water, let's dig into some meatier questions. I'm going to interpret Jaen's question in a positive manner and assume I'm being asked who have been the most pleasant surprises on both sides of the ball.

On offense, I would go with first-year tight end Tanner Hudson. The Buccaneers had two undrafted rookie tight ends on their practice squad last year and both of them got promoted near the end of the year. Hudson was one and Donnie Ernsberger was the other. Only Ernsberger actually got into a game, though; Hudson was inactive for his three contests on the active roster.

Both came back this year on the 90-man roster but Hudson has already outlasted Ernsberger, who was waived about a week into camp, the same day the team signed veteran tight end Scott Orndoff. The Bucs didn't carry a large number of tight ends in the offseason and they still are only at six, so the competition for the three or possibly four eventual spots on the 53-man roster isn't all that crowded. However, it \is\ a bit top-heavy, as O.J. Howard and Cam Brate are entrenched as the starters and Antony Auclair has been the third tight end for about a season and a half now. Other than those already mentioned, the Bucs also have Jordan Leggett, who played in 15 games for the Jets last season.

So Hudson is the least experienced of the six tight ends on the roster, but I wouldn't count him out. Obviously, he played very well in the preseason opener, catching seven passes for 84 yards, including one incredible one-handed touchdown grab. But he's also looked good most days in practice, too. He told me that his pass-catching skills are more advanced than his blocking, and that would make sense for a guy who converted to the position from quarterback while in college. Hudson is working hard to improve his blocking and may have to in order to unseat Auclair, who is valued mostly for his abilities in that department.

That said, Hudson might not have to unseat Auclair. The Buccaneers could easily choose to keep four tight ends if they want to keep the young prospect around. If that's the case, Hudson might not see a lot of action early in the season, but he would be a valuable reserve to have around to keep the Bucs' two-TE set loaded with pass-catchers if either Howard or Brate is unavailable for any amount of time.

On defense, my first thought was Vernon Hargreaves because he just seems to make a couple big plays in every practice. But I guess that's just a matter of degree – I'm not surprised that Hargreaves is doing well, just maybe a bit surprised at how well, and how consistently well. Instead I'll dig a little deeper and go with defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter.

If I had asked most Bucs fans to name who was on the Bucs' defensive line depth chart prior to the start of training camp, I'm guessing most would've started with Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. Some might have mentioned Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib, though those guys are now classified as outside linebackers. Beau Allen and William Gholston are well-known names, too, and seventh-round draft pick Terry Beckner might be fresh in some minds. These fans could have been forgiven if it took a while to get around to Jeremiah Ledbetter, since he spent almost all of last season on the practice squad and only got into one game at the very end of the season.

That's not to see Ledbetter is lacking in pedigree. He was a sixth-round draft pick in Detroit in 2018 and he played in all 16 games for the Lions that year. He even had four quarterback pressures and half a sack. Still, most Buc fans are probably just beginning to catch on to him.

Ledbetter suffered a high ankle sprain a few days ago and will probably be sidelined for a couple of weeks. That's a bit of a bummer because he had built up a good amount of momentum with a strong training camp, but at least he will be ready to play when the team has to make its cut-down to 53 players on August 31 if that timetable holds.

It's easy to see when Tanner Hudson is having a good practice because he's catching a lot of passes. It's a little tougher to assess how well a down linemen is doing in practice, especially with no tackling and a prohibition on sacks. But we do have the words of Arians to go on, and he has singled out Ledbetter for praise on more than one occasion. About 10 days into camp he brought up Ledbetter as one player who could be an answer to the search for depth on the line. Arians said the young player was doing particularly well in rushing the passer. Then, after the first preseason game, the coach had this to say on essentially the same topic:

"[Jeremiah] Ledbetter had a real good game. The rest of the guys are still fighting it out and we’ll just see how it goes."

That would seem to indicate that Ledbetter has elevated himself from the pack in the battle to win those rotational spots on the line. I'd say the fact that he did this so quickly and apparently so convincingly qualifies as a camp surprise.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers joint Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center with the Miami Dolphins.

What effects have injuries had on the team?

- Elias.a.henderson, via Instagram

I'd say they've had about the effect you would find injuries making in any training camp. Unless your team is made up of 45 Ronde Barbers and 45 Derrick Brookses, you're going to get some injuries to a 90-man roster that is practicing nearly every day. I'm not going to say it's going well for fear of being a jinx, but I don't think the Bucs have too much to complain about, relatively speaking.

The most impactful injury the Bucs have suffered to this year's roster happened months before training camp, when Jason Pierre-Paul hurt his neck in an auto accident. Taking the player who led you in sacks last year with 12.5 out of the equation before camp even begins is tough. JPP's timetable is still a little hard to pin down, but Arians has said he's still on track to hopefully return sometime in October. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are trying to figure out their edge rush through a variety of moving parts. I'd say there's high hopes for players like Nassib, Shaq Barrett and Noah Spence, but things would certainly look more solid if Pierre-Paul was in the mix.

The two most significant injuries since camp started are the ones to the knees of Vita Vea and Lavonte David. That's taking two very important pieces right out of the middle of the defense, and that would be a big effect if it were going to be the case for any medium-sized portion of the regular season. Right now, though, it's not a big deal, especially at linebacker where the very experienced Deone Bucannon is stepping in for David and playing next to a potential star in rookie Devin White. David is expected back in time for the start of the regular season and the hope is that Vea won't be too far behind. If he misses three or four weeks, though, and then takes some time to get back into shape, you might have a repeat of last year, in which he really didn't start producing like you would expect a first-round pick to produce until the second half of the season.

Justin Evans' PUP status has affected the safety competition, and now that Orion Stewart and D'Cota Dixon are on injured reserve and Mike Edwards is out for about a week with an injury, the team felt the need to sign veteran Darian Stewart. That's a pretty significant effect.

In addition to Stewart and Dixon, offensive lineman Mike Liedtke and wide receiver Bryant Mitchell are already on injured reserve. It's not a given that any of those four would have had big roles during the regular season, so that might not be too impactful to the team. On a personal level, though, those are tough breaks for those four players. Dixon, in particular, had been moving up the depth chart before his injury.

In a slightly quieter but still significant way, the injuries to draft picks Anthony Nelson and Scotty Miller have been a little frustrating. The coaches don't really need to see Lavonte David practice to know that he needs to be on the 53-man roster and in a big role on the defense. But they do need more information on players like Nelson and Miller, fourth and sixth-round picks respectively. Edwards is sidelined, too, as mentioned, but he has probably shown enough before he went down for the coaches to know what they had.

So, to sum it all up, Elias, I would say the biggest overall effect of the Bucs' assorted injuries is to make it more difficult for the decision-makers to figure out the best 53-man roster at the end of the month. But that's pretty much the case in every training camp.

Who in your opinion, is having the best training camp on the defensive side of the ball?

- Jlch, via Instagram

I probably gave away my answer above in the "surprises" question when I mentioned Vernon Hargreaves. Not only has he been the most obvious standout to me in this camp, but it's also been a very welcome sight. After the year the secondary had in 2018 – in which Hargreaves only played in one game – that's where the team most needed some players to step up and have better seasons. Hargreaves might have had a good season in '18 – he was playing well in the opener before sustaining a shoulder injury – but never got the chance. The Bucs have added a lot of young talent to the defensive backfield about which they are excited, but it's still hard to get too comfortable relying primarily on rookies and second-year men. Having one spot locked down by a fourth-year veteran and former first-round pick is comforting.

Since that answer was kind of a given, I'll give you a couple more, and they're based on what Rondé Barber told us during his recent guest appearance on the Salty Dogs podcast. I asked him essentially that same question and he did in fact mention Hargreaves. His first answer, however, was Vita Vea, who I also thought was looking really good before he got hurt. Vea is very big and very strong and you could see him just moving people around, especially in one-on-one drills.

When Barber was giving us his answer to that question I thought he was done after talking about those two. But then he said he would give us one more name: Devin White. Barber said from what he has seen in practice, White is going to be a special player. I have watched a lot of practice over the past three weeks, but I'll take Rondé Barber's assessment of the players over my own on any day.

The countdown to season kickoff is on! And the Bucs are kicking off the NFL’s 100 season with a FREE Tim McGraw pregame concert for all fans with a ticket to the home opener on Sept. 8! Get your tickets today.

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